Cruel and unusual punishment

“Self-respect and a sense of self-worth is the innermost armament of the soul. It lies at the heart of our attempts to maintain our humanness. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen. Inside prison, degradation is as lethal as a bullet.” Ivan Kilgore, California State Prison

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who was incarcerated for 25 years before being released a year ago. I asked if he thought he could endure the experience again, after tasting the sweet nectar of freedom. His response shook me to my core. Although being released from prison allowed him to regain his freedom, he explained that more importantly, it gave him back his humanity. He could “never” survive imprisonment again, he said.

I understand: When you are incarcerated in a nonproductive, volatile environment and treated inhumanely, you become desensitized over time to things you’d otherwise never be able to endure. It’s a defense mechanism that enables you to survive. You see, to survive in prison, you first must learn to endure mentally. And a big part of that process occurs unconsciously, as you normalize the abnormal — until your humanity is gone and you are, essentially, nothing more than an animal. At that point, you no longer think twice about stripping naked in front of another man, bending over and spreading your buttocks to expose your anus — a normally humiliating act that prisoners do many times a week when ordered (often randomly) to submit to a strip search. Even witnessing the stabbing of one inmate by another — a not-so-uncommon experience — or spending months at a time “locked down” become endurable. (Guide for the uninformed: During a “lockdown,” inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day as a form of warehousing when staffing is short or punishment — often for an act done elsewhere in the prison or even another facility altogether.)

What particularly got me about my friend’s statement was that although I am not technically free, I felt a strong correlation with my own fears about the prospect of returning to a federal penitentiary. (D.C. does not have its own prison; thus, the district contracts with the federal Bureau of Prisons, sending the newly incarcerated to federal institutions across the country. I only was returned to DC, after 24 years, to allow me to be nearby during court proceedings as I sought to be released early. However, I lost that bid and now am at risk of being sent back any day to the “feds.”) You see, when you’re in the middle of a storm, your sole focus is on survival. It is not until you are safe that you’re aware of the fact that you’re soaking wet. This is what happened to both of us. My friend regained his humanity only by obtaining his freedom, which made him feel incapable of coping with the indignity of another strip search. As for me, I have been living in the DC jail for the past year, being treated as a human for the first time in more than two decades. Now that I am out, I am realizing just how horrible federal prison is. I never want to experience another lockdown again. Yet before I was moved to the DC jail, I could tolerate staying in my cell for months at a time, not really even caring.

You may have read in the news recently about the horrific prison conditions in Mississippi, where the institutions erupted in violence in January. At least five prisoners were stabbed or beaten to death by other inmates. What caused such an eruption? Lockdowns are a constant at Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution, site of the first killing. In fact, a lockdown was in place for most of 2019, according to the state. Pelicia Hall, who was corrections commissioner for the state at the time, acknowledged to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that as soon as lockdowns end, “rage pours out that door.”

But, just like in the federal system, the prison administration’s response was…more lockdowns.

To help you truly understand what a lockdown is like, imagine being locked in a bathroom with another person, with one, “public” toilet and without access to a shower. There is no recreation permitted, no phone calls, no TV, no sharing of books, no educational opportunities, no purchase of goods from the commissary, nothing. Your only connection to the outside world is a radio and mail. You are only allowed a 10-minute shower every 72 hours, and this is the only time you can leave your cell until lockdown is lifted.

It’s just you and your cellmate. You two must share everything. When he passes gas or defecates, you smell it. When he walks the floor, you must stay in your bed because there isn’t enough room for two at the same time. The window is so small you can’t both look out at the same time. Only one person at a time can use the sink to wash up, and privacy is possible only by dividing the cell with a sheet made into a curtain. Only one person at a time can write or eat on the desk or table, so the other person must sit on his bed or the toilet, holding a tray on his legs while he eats.

Oh, and I didn’t mention that they don’t really feed you during lockdowns. You might be given a little bit of cereal with an apple and a bologna or peanut butter sandwich for every meal and, if you are lucky, you might get a bag of chips.

How would this make you feel? Angry, disillusioned, crazy, enraged? Lockdowns happen repetitively. You come off of one lockdown, you’re out for about a week and then you can be locked down for another month. The original reason for the punishment could be a fight or discovery of drugs, but then each incident of aberrant behavior that erupts as a result lengthens the lockdown. The SHU (special housing unit) fills and you’re locked down again. It gets to the point when you are almost programmed to get ready for lockdown. You began to hoard food (assembling a “lockdown bag”), books, magazines and batteries. The punishment of being locked down no longer serves its purpose; this is why rage flows out of the cells!

In biology class the other day, we discussed how genes interact with the environment to influence a person’s resilience. The teacher asked us to complete a survey to determine our level of resiliency. I looked at the scale and thought about all of the things I have been through and how I was able to always bounce back. I said to myself that this scale isn’t big enough for me, because I can survive and bounce back from anything. To me, my resiliency level is a 1000. But, once becoming whole, can I really deal with being dehumanized again?

A better question: Should anybody have to endure an institutional lockdown?

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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